Ireland can do better in attracting Chinese tourists

Tue, Jun 26, 2012, 01:00

AN UNEXPECTED sight in recent years when you take a Shanghai taxi is the “Jump into Ireland” advertisement playing on the back of the headrest in front of you, with shots of Irish beauty spots greeting you as you drive through the streets of China’s biggest city.

Chinese tourists are big business now. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has indicated that travel expenditure by the Chinese was almost €58 billion last year. Susan Li of Tourism Ireland recently told the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce that 10,000 Chinese visitors come to Ireland each year.

There is scope to boost these numbers, Li said during a talk at the Shanghai Irish Centre, a Treasury China Trust-funded location for Irish events, especially when you consider the economy is expanding and there is a growing interest in travelling abroad. China is home to an estimated 535,000 high net worth individuals.

“We focus on Beijing and Shanghai, and Guangzhou is a growing market for us. The most popular product is a multi-country product, but more and more are looking at one or two countries, which would usually mean Britain and Ireland in our case,” she said.

The Irish number looks pretty small when you figure that some two million Chinese people visit Europe each year. France gets 600,000 Chinese visitors a year, while Germany gets 400,000. Their prospects are boosted because they are within the Schengen Area, a border-free zone that can be visited on a single visa.

People like to rack up as many countries as possible on their overseas trips, so the Schengen countries have an automatic advantage over non-Schengen countries such as Ireland and Britain. Last year Britain had 200,000 Chinese tourists.

This is still a big draw, as the bureaucracy for organising visas can be extremely difficult, and Li described how tough it can be for some Chinese people. There is always the fear that people are using the tourist visa to get overseas and will then “jump” when they arrive abroad. If people leave a tour group, the tour operators face heavy penalties and can even lose their licence to operate.

Ireland faces a number of challenges in attracting visitors. Tour operators selling packages to, say, Australia tend not to make money from the packages themselves but from commission shopping. They keep package prices low – a package to Australia costs around 10,000 yuan (€1,252), which is not much more than the cost of the flight ticket. The tour operators get 20 or 30 per cent commission on sales, which on luxury items like Rolex watches or diamonds can be quite significant.

Countries like Australia have been aggressive in marketing themselves in China. The promotion group Tourism Australia recently announced a new €48 million Asia Marketing Fund, which will target China particularly. And it pays off. Last year 540,000 Chinese visited Australia, a rise of 19.4 per cent, and they spent €3 billion.

Chinese tourists’ priorities when travelling abroad are quite unconventional by Western standards. For example, not a lot of Irish people would automatically opt to visit Trier on a tour of Germany, but this is a popular destination on the Chinese tour group because it is the birthplace of Karl Marx, and therefore an essential place of pilgrimage for any good socialist. And despite appearances to the contrary, China is still a socialist country.

On the plus side, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny extended until October 2016 the visa waiver scheme for Chinese tourists who wish to visit Ireland, during his trade mission to China this year. The scheme allows Chinese visitors to come to Ireland when they are visiting the UK, without the hassle or cost of applying for a separate visa.

The sight of future president Xi Jinping carrying a hurley or standing on the Cliffs of Moher has done a lot to boost Irelands visibility.

And the market is growing in sophistication. There are more and more Chinese tourists opting to go as free independent travellers (FIT) to Ireland. “Young people who speak good English, for example, don’t always want to travel in groups anymore,” said Li.

Tourism Ireland hopes there should be a boost from Olympic tourism, given that the games are taking place in London this year, and other areas might help such as business travellers and golfing tourism. There is always discussion about a direct flight and how that might help boost traffic.

And, of course, if Ireland goes into the casino business, that would also help bring Chinese tourists.

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